Deconstructing the self-licking ice cream cone

David Postman

Here are a few definitions:

  • self-licking ice cream cone n. a process, department, institution, or other thing that offers few benefits and exists primarily to justify or perpetuate its own existence. Also in the form self-licking lollipop.
  • A phrase not widely used (Google finds a mere 927 references), a "self-licking ice cream cone" is something that is very clever but entirely self serving and essentially useless.
  • A metaphor to describe an entity that exists only for its own benefit. A quick web search seems to show this phrase is commonly used by policy wonks and pundits to describe government institutions. In his article "The Intelligence Gap: How the digital age left our spies out in the cold"1, Seymour M. Hersh wrote this about the NSA: "One former official described the civilian leadership as 'a self-licking ice-cream cone', with little tolerance for dissent or information it did not wish to hear."

    The New Yorker, December 6, 1999, pp. 58-76.

  • "Self-licking ice cream cone" is the descriptor for a self-fulfilling prophecy as described by the 20th century sociologist Robert K. Merton: "The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true."
  • The military-industrial complex is a political economy with a big P and a little E. It's very political in nature. Economic decisions, which should prevail in a normal market system, don't prevail in the Pentagon, or in the military-industrial complex.

    So what we have is a system that essentially rewards its senior players. It's a self ... what we call it, we have a term for it, it's a self-licking ice cream cone. We basically take care of ourselves. And that's why we have the metaphor that it's Versailles on the Potomac. It is basically self-referencing.

  • Apologies to Mr. Robert Kaplan, as I am borrowing the above term from an article he wrote a few years ago following a visit to Afghanistan. When Mr. Kaplan referred to the "self-licking ice cream cone", he was specifically referring to Bagram Air Field, which by that time had become swollen with various Army and Air Force support personnel who seemed to have no real impact on the war effort. They basically existed to justify their own existence.

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